17 December 2007

The Independent Academic

I am frequently asked by acquaintances why exactly it is that I am not pursuing an academic career. It runs in the family, after all, and is commonly viewed by musicians as a secure and cushy alternative to either a harrowing freelance career or the hyper-competitive audition circuit.

I would say that this way of thinking about academic careers is somewhat naive. For an interesting reality check on this subject, go here (scroll down to "An Important Perspective on Teaching"). The phenomenon of teachers who would really rather be performing is well known to musicians. In my case, I really do want to teach, but there are enough drawbacks to academia as it is currently constituted to keep me away for the moment. Here's the laundry list:

(1) Location. There are always a few academic positions open, but they are almost without exception located in places that would afford the applicant almost no opportunity for meaningful collaboration or exposure, except perhaps with other faculty members. I've already made the decision that it is simply not worth my time to spend 5-10 years of my career in relative isolation. (Speaking of Isolation, have you purchased your copy yet?) I would jump at the chance to teach at a major university in a major metropolitan area, but this tends to require a significant record of accomplishments, if not by way of climbing the academic ladder, then at least by having a distinguished freelance career. The latter is my first priority anyway

(2) Qualifications. I am not the first person to say this: it would make sense for academia to hire music faculty based on their musicianship and teaching ability rather than the degrees they hold. Nonetheless, many have complained that things seem to be moving in the opposite direction. I have seen job postings in the composition area that simply require a doctorate, with no exceptions made; I have, conversely, seen none in the applied instrumental area that didn't leave at least a small amount of wiggle room for candidates with exceptional "real world" credentials (i.e. world renowned performers); and I have indeed met a few tenured music faculty who do not hold a doctorate at all and seem to have no intent of obtaining one.

Being the son and grandson of professors, I for one have always been somewhat taken aback (if not outright offended) by the contempt many of my peers hold for professors: "He thinks he's so important...he makes us call him Dr. So-and-so...he loves the sound of his own voice..." If this isn't a textbook case of activating a defense mechanism out of sheer insecurity, then I don't know what is. And it is disturbingly widespread among people my age and younger (I'm 25). After 5 years of college, I can't say that I ever once felt that way about a professor; then again, I was in part raised by one, so perhaps that's not surprising. In any case, I am at least peripherally aware of the amount of work that goes into completing a doctorate of any kind, and I can't help but have a certain amount of respect for most anyone who does so; this, however, by no means automatically equates to distinction (or even competence) as an instructor, and especially not as a functional musician. That such an attribute would become the primary determining factor in who is hired and who is not can only be called disappointing.

(3) Politics. Speaking of academia, it was in one of the precious few non-music classes I was required to take as an undergraduate where I learned what I consider to be a very insightful definition of politics: "Institutionalized inequalities of power." A better description of academia itself has never been given. There's no question that in my 5 years of college, the most severe conflicts I witnessed were of the intra-faculty variety. The consequences of this ranged from irreversible long-term animosity to resignations and de facto dismissals. In fairness, it has taken only a comparatively short amount of time spent out here in the so-called real world for me to realize that (and this is, in the grand scheme of things, a more frustrating realization to come to terms with) a certain amount of this sort of thing is inevitable just about everywhere human beings have to be around each other, most notably at the workplace and around the freelance/local music scene. Perhaps it's way too idealistic to aspire to eliminate it altogether; I don't think, however, that it is unrealistic to think that we could do better than we are right now.

Just how bad is it? Lacking any first hand experience myself, I'd be curious to hear other people's stories. Kyle Gann, for one, reports circumstantial evidence that his sabbatical led to a significant drop in blood pressure. Could it really be this bad?

(4) Competition It's safe to say that academic appointments are, in fact, just about as hard to come by as orchestral positions or consistent freelance work. When I was in school, I once served on a search committee that received almost 130 applications for a single position. Essentially, the previous three grievances are all mediated by this one (if not caused by it altogether). I don't doubt that there are academic positions out there somewhere that afford one the opportunity to live in a city with a vibrant music scene, to get along with colleagues, to work with students who are there for the right reasons, and to do as a "musician/teacher" rather than a "teacher/administrator." (I won't spill the beans as to which of my professors I'm stealing that last line from...) If that was my ultimate goal in life, I have confidence that I could make it happen at some point; the problem lies in what would have to be sacrificed in the meantime in order to lay the groundwork.


What is the alternative? What about those who want to pursue what can only be called an "academic" career in the sense that it entails significant teaching, research, writing, and publishing endeavors, yet for whatever reason don't feel that academia is the right place for them? Let's establish right away that to be opposed to academia as it is currently constituted is a very different thing than being "anti-academic" or, worse yet, "anti-intellectual." I hold no greater amount of contempt for any group of people than for those who claim membership in these two dubious clubs. I'd like to consider myself both an academic and an intellectual, whether or not I have any credibility within the institutional manifestations of those ideas; nonetheless, I'm positive that I'll accomplish more as a so-called freelancer than I would by banging my head against the wall of the Ivory Tower.

An "independent academic" movement would be the ideal response to the current academic and intellectual (not to mention musical) climate, hence taking what we need from academia (the rigor and the perspective) and leaving behind all the bullshit (politics, dogma, compartmentalization of learning, etc. etc. etc.). In turn, it would entail doing the same with the empowerment of individual voices made possible by recent innovations like the internet, making great use of the independence, individuality, and potential for wide dissemination, and leaving behind the vanity, self-indulgence, and the expectation of short attention spans.

A long term goal of mine (and this has been the case since I first got to college and saw little room for improvement in the quality of instruction, yet immense room for improvement in administration, curriculum, structure, scheduling, and so on) is to be the chair/director/dean of a public university music department, and to be afforded the opportunity to restructure said department according to my own philosophy (which is to say obliterate it and rebuild from the ground up). That may yet happen, but the wrong thing to do would be to sit around and wait for it.

I recall once being asked by a fellow musician how I intended to make a living in music. I responded that I intended to freelance, to which he exclaimed, "Freelancing? That's a terrible way to make a living!" As with so many catch-all music-related terms, it has the potential to be misleading: I did not mean to say that I aspire to make a living playing weddings and polka parties, just that I intend to do my thing independently; but I would also say that this "thing," so to speak, is inherently academic. I think we ought to take offense to the notion that this is a contradiction.

11 December 2007

The Art of Socializing

When I was in college, one of my professors was fond of referring to music as "The Social Art." It has also been said that an ensemble is very similar to a marriage, only among many people rather than just two. These are indeed an accurate descriptions of music, but it is something to loathe, not celebrate.

Music's inherently social and collaborative nature is overwhelmingly stifling and burdensome to its practitioners, who understandably have trouble putting aside a laundry list of non-musical personal differences: clashing personalities, personal hygiene problems, varying organizational skills, past romantic involvement, physical mannerisms, egotism, substance abuse, and even deep-seated cultural divisions of race and class can all cause an otherwise fruitful collaboration to go up in smoke (or, more likely, never happen at all).

To cite yet another well-known anecdote, "Familiarity breeds contempt." Perhaps it is evidence of how difficult it is to create truly exceptional musical products that performers and colleagues rarely last long without developing irrevocable animosity for each other (i.e. over the failure to produce such products via their collaboration). It is more likely, however, that it merely reflects this laundry list of pre-existing conditions, at least a few of which virtually all of us bring along to any collaborative endeavor.

In theory, music may indeed be "The Social Art," but in practice, it would be more aptly described as "The Art of Socializing" manifested on many different levels, a tangled mess of precarious interpersonal relationships which few people have the patience, skill, and guile to sustain for long enough periods of time to reach whatever musical goals they might have.

Is it realistic to expect people to put aside significant personal differences for the benefit of the music? Some would argue that musical success is crucially dependent on social cohesion among the collaborators. Others would quickly point out that counter examples abound throughout recent musical history. To a great extent, once you have managed to assemble the group and thrust them into action (i.e. on stage in front of other sentient beings), they will, on reflex, simply turn their attention to the task at hand no matter how glorious or dismal the offstage relationships have gotten. Where music particularly becomes "The Social Art" is where the music requires prolonged exposure, rehearsal, and study in order to realize, hence presupposing a commitment on behalf of all involved to remain engaged with these collective efforts.

In other words, familiarity among people may breed contempt, but between a performing musician and a particular piece of music, it breeds proficiency, if not artistry. This is a paradox which few musicians are able to solve (or, more likely, avoid, which can only happen out of sheer luck). Those few musicians, however, will be exceptionally able to sustain fruitful musical collaborations, and whether or not any given observer judges them to have been musically successful, they will likely have the most successful careers in every other sense.

28 November 2007

The Abstract is Real

I have a problem with those who blindly claim allegiance to "The Arts." For one thing, if all of "The Arts" share one thing in common, it is our collective inability to define what "art" is in the first place. But to get to the real problem here, we need to go beyond this now rather superfluous observation and ask whether the very idea of a given individual embracing all art as good is not, in fact, an inherently disingenuous proposition.

Being an art where categorization runs rampant, music provides us with a microcosm of the problem with "The Arts." It is startlingly common these days for listeners to report that they like many different kinds of music, or even very occasionally that they like all kinds of music equally well. The former statement is critically dependent on how many total "kinds of music" there are in existence, while the latter, absurdly, would seem to presuppose knowledge of all extant music. In other words, the question of scale must first be addressed to evaluate the validity of either claim. This, however, is mere philosophical nitpicking; the real problem here is that the very concept of "liking" something (anything) requires an opposite (call it "disliking") simply in order to exist.

Put another way, it is impossible for everything to be "the best." If this were the case, there would be no best, only uniform mediocrity. Being an entirely relative concept, "the most good" means nothing except in relation to "that which is less good." It follows that in order to have likes, we must have dislikes as well, for the very idea of preference resists uniform projection.

It seems to me that the most likely reason anyone would desire to like everything is of a purely social nature. I'm sure that most musicians can recall an instance (perhaps many) where they minced words about a piece they didn't care for simply out of a desire to remain in someone's good graces. As a culture, we cave to herd mentality rather easily in such scenarios, if not inwardly, then certainly outwardly. In any case, when it comes to "The Arts," as with styles of music, I have my doubts as to whether any of us can, with any truth or validity whatsoever, report that we judge them aesthetically to be of equal merit. Whether or not this is actually the case, I can say with more certainty that I, for one, most definitely am not capable of this.

Despite having pursued a career in music, and hence being lumped in with other "Artists," I have no interest in most of the rest of "The Arts." Even within music, there is a line in the sand for me, and that line demarcates the border between the abstract and the representational. It has taken me until this point to figure out what it is that my aesthetic "likes" have in common: they are non-representational, non-linguistic, and non-sequential; in a word, abstract.

There is most definitely a tendency on the part of modern day commentators to view this as a sort of perversion or pathology. It may indeed be unusual, but I believe that there is one significant sense in which it is, in fact, highly rational. Take, for example, the difference between a Shakespeare play on one hand, and a Brahms symphony on the other (or, even simpler, a representational painting that attains a high degree of realism, and an abstract one that represents nothing in particular). In the case of the play, we must essentially pretend that what is going on in front of us is real even though we know it is not; same in the case of a representational painting. Abstract art, on the other hand, whether it be sonic or visual, is always real; as an NFL player would say, "It is what it is."

It is mind-boggling, in a way, that abstract art is generally thought to be more demanding and less accessible. In reality, it is the most accessible art there is, but perhaps it makes us that much more uncomfortable by putting us more directly in touch with the fact that to speak of liking something, we must dislike something else. As for likes and dislikes among "The Arts," I have a most intense dislike for things like theatre and film that present the audience with a choice between fantasy and reality while presuming that anyone in their right mind would go for the former. Personally, I'll take reality every time. Abstract art's lack of meaning, representation, linguistic properties, etc. is precisely what makes it so real; conversely, there is an element of artificiality to any presentation that presupposes the suspension of disbelief.

23 November 2007

November 24 CD Release

Who: Pan-Metropolitan Trio

Stefan Kac, Tuba

Japhlet Bire Attias, Chapman Stick®

Owen Weaver/Nick Zielinski, Percussion

What: CD Release Show for "Isolation"

When: Saturday, November 24, 2007, 11:30pm

Where: Dakota Jazz Club (1010 Nicollet Mall, Downtown Minneapolis)

Why: who needs a reason?

There is a $5 cover for this show, and we will, of course, be selling CD's for $12 each.

Go here to read an article about the band and listen to a track from the CD.

20 November 2007

More Harping on Promotion and The Scene

Something that has been bothering me lately has been the content of music-oriented newsletters and journals. I feel like a fine line is being blurred between the basically noble cause of giving exposure to a brilliant new artist (subjective as that label might be) and merely doing favors for friends; between current events coverage and a concert calendar; between a profile and a press release. I can't help but feel that many such publications I encounter have merely become conduits for promotion, hence neglecting important academic, critical, or news-oriented functions. Ironically, it is a self-defeating enterprise when pursued in this way, for now that this comprises such an astonishing majority of content, I cannot even begin to keep track of all of these people and their always impressive-sounding accomplishments.

I have myself, of course, occasionally been the beneficiary of such things, and am always involved in my fair share of promotional activities (this and similar blogs, I would continue to insist, being included in this category). It is also an unavoidable truth that some of the most enlightening and informative musicological specimens are musicians writing about themselves and their work. In my estimation, however, there is a certain gracefulness about many such works that is conspicuously absent in the garden variety articles we encounter constantly today.

I picked up the most recent issue of the ITEA Journal fearing more of the same, yet this time, I was pleasantly surprised with the cover story on tubist Jens Bjørn-Larsen. Without putting words in his mouth, I get the distinct impression that Joseph Skillen, the author of the article, shares the concerns I've laid out here: in the very first paragraph, he overtly states the intention to present "a different type of article than we normally see in our journal." In my estimation, he succeeded not just in being different but in presenting something useful, proving that granting exposure to an artist need not preclude making a larger contribution to the dialogue.

Though I found this article to be very informative in terms of pedagogy, it was a biographical detail that will probably stick in my mind the longest, and which I think is worth discussing here. According to the article, Bjørn-Larsen grew up living in an apartment, and after he took up the tuba as a kid, the noise of practicing soon became a problem for the neighbors, who sent "an elected spokesman" to talk to the family.

The neighbors said they certainly wanted him to practice, but they didn't want to hear it. Shockingly all the neighbors agreed to pay for soundproofing a room in the Bjørn-Larsen apartment so that Jens could practice and not disrupt the rest of the building. His childhood experiments then continued in this soundproof space.

I feel confident (though not happy) in saying that this is something that would never happen in Minneapolis. When I meet a musician from New York City, I always ask them about practice, and the response is always the same: everyone practices in their apartments and no one complains. I'm sure that's not true across the board, but it's obviously more true there than it is in the Midwest. While I lived with my parents (in a house, thankfully), I often practiced late at night, and even overnight. I talked with neighbors occasionally, and never did anyone tell me it was a problem. Yet one night during the summer of 2004, someone actually called the police on me. They knocked on the door and told me to stop, which I did, only to resume 20 minutes later with a mute. Eventually, I simply resumed playing at all hours of the day without the mute, and never had another problem. I do, however, know people here (some of whom live in houses, not apartments) who have had ongoing problems with neighbors over their practice, even in the middle of the day.

The Twin Cities music scene elicits a great deal of cheerleading from local observers. Since I got serious about playing professionally, I have grown skeptical about our supposedly disproportionately high ranking among music scenes nationally, although I have not spent enough time in cities of similar size to have any standard of comparison. I will say this: music is not "in the air" here; it's not an integral part of the culture. There's a lot of noise made in the press, akin to what I described earlier, but when it comes right down to it, the neighbors default to calling the cops, not building soundproof rooms for their neighbors' kid. The City of Minneapolis has also become shockingly draconian in dealing with venues that host live music: witness Exhibit A and Exhibit B.

There's no point in pouting over it, but I do wish the dialogue was a bit more informed. Take, for example, the situation with Tillie's Bean ("Exhibit A" above). Everything I've read about this story uses the fact that the musicians who perform there are not paid (aside from tips, apparently) as a way of eliciting sympathy for the establishment. I'll get to why I'm upset with the City's handling of this situation in a minute, but I'm also upset (and this is only one of a great many such instances all around the area) that the word "underselling" is never uttered. In some sense, musicians who play for little or no guaranteed money are doing exactly that to their colleagues. Yet it also seems obvious that a workshop-style gathering of amateurs is a far different thing from a polished, professional musical presentation. These two groups of people should not, in theory, be in direct competition with each other* as they ostensibly offer different products, and hence, it should not be hypocritical to assert that both have their rightful place in the local musical economy. This all rests, however, on the fickleness of that abstract entity known as "the scene," and as usual, "the scene" disappoints.

One of the truly maddening things about the Twin Cities is that these two groups are by no fault of their own in very direct competition with each other for the precious few dedicated listeners out there who have the time and the money to spend listening to live music, yet either value the ostensible social status associated with this or that venue over the music itself, or simply aren't bothered by substandard acoustics, poor intonation, and unprofessional stage presence enough to demand better of the performers. Predictably, most of them take the path of least resistance and opt for the performers they most relate to socially, and who cost the least to hear. I would posit that the national economic situation has something to do with it too, but that's outside the purview of this blog, as well as my expertise.

Suffice it to say that if we really want to have a scene,** then we (the audience) need to demand a scene, and then put our money where our mouths are. If trends start on the coasts and move inland, us Minneapolitans can expect that sooner or later, musicians will be paying to play in high-profile venues. If we really are serious about having a music scene, we ought to be giving these kinds of things some thought and heading them off at the pass. That, however, requires some serious hipness that I'm not sure exists here.

This is where you call me an elitist. This is also where you tell me that hipness is relative and socially constructed, not absolute. This is also where you call me a hypocrite for saying (as I often do) that there's no right or wrong way to listen to music, and that "educating listeners into conformity" (I love saying that) is the musical equivalent of fascism. I continue to stand by all of that, and am merely pointing out a simple cause and effect relationship: for every professional/accomplished musician working on the scene, there are 25 amateur/unaccomplished musicians underselling them. The salient feature of the professional presentation is the quality; the drawback is the cost. The exact opposite is true of the amateur. Hence, the only way the professional musician will be economically successful is if audiences choose quality over cost. If this does not happen, the professional will either move to a city where it does happen, or enroll in law school. Either way, the choices made by scenesters have a direct effect on which music is viable in that scene. If we are going to label scenes "hip" or "not hip", we have to look at what is viable there and judge it, not the people who put it out there, to be "hip" or "not hip."

Having arrived at this conclusion, the logical next question is, "Whither the Union?" Having joined for the first time a few months ago and now had a chance to review all of the relevant bylaws, I can only assume that many of them are not strictly enforced out of the practical realization that the situation here is so far gone that doing so would do more harm than good (the City could have used a dose of this sort of reasoning before they jumped all over Tillie's Bean, as could ASCAP, who has been on their own crusade against neighborhood coffeehouses for some time now). I was particularly shocked to read that as an AFM Local 30-73 member, I am not supposedly not allowed to sit in or make a guest appearance if I am not being paid. I have trouble seeing how this policy makes things better for musicians here, particularly considering (sorry, here I go again) that the Twin Cities jazz scene is spectacularly devoid of artistically and socially fruitful collaborations between young and old musicians (largely, in my estimation, a result of the latter viewing the former more as competition for the precious few paying gigs than as potential collaborators and much-needed new blood).

Given that I've witnessed this rule violated countless times, and sometimes in high-profile situations, I'm then comforted to know that whoever is in charge of policing such things obviously sees that doing so now would yield nothing positive. The same cannot be said of the national leadership's position on the RIAA's anti-piracy crusade, which has finally hit close to home. My impression of the slant of the International Musician (the AFM's monthly journal) is that they are just fine with these sorts of things; the short (3 paragraph) summary of the Thomas case was a cold, objective rundown of the verdict, concluding with a typically rosy-sounding excerpt from a statement released by the RIAA shortly thereafter. Perhaps this is the only tenable position for them to take given their role in negotiating with media conglomerates, which we have to assume is an overwhelmingly positive contribution. I wonder if the membership agrees? (And how many are "pirates" themselves?)

Somehow, I've found my way all the way back to critiquing music-oriented journals. For some reason, I feel guilty about skimming rather than reading and digesting these publications, but this is only the unavoidable result of there not being too much to digest in the first place. In talking to one fellow member recently, I realized I'm not the only one. In any case, the blogosphere has become a much more vital conduit of the sort of dialogue we're missing in print in many cases. As for the local scene, I'm happy to report that both concerts I went to over the weekend were very good, although they both involved musicians from other cities to some extent or another. They were also both very well attended, which is also good news. Maybe there's some hipness lurking here after all; or maybe the fact that a media blitz will lead a concert of Ligeti and Lutoslawski music to sell out is further evidence that it's "see and be scene" in the Twin Cities after all.


*For a fascinating take on amateurs competing with professionals (from shockingly early in history), see Arnold Schoenberg's "The Blessing of the Dressing" in the tome Style and Idea (I've cited it before here).

**In writing that line, I'm suddenly reminded of one of the all time great Onion headlines: "New Poll Finds 86 Percent Of Americans Don't Want To Have A Country Anymore."

10 November 2007


What matters is not how many people listen to your music, but what their relationship is to that music. If they are people who show up only to see and be seen, or who collect books and CD's as household decorations so that guests will see them as more intellectual, then you have not really succeeded in the most important way. It is infinitely more gratifying to play for small, appreciative and engaged audiences than it is to play for throngs of distractible yuppie chatterboxes. I say this as someone who has done both.

01 November 2007

Following up on the last post

One of the truly maddening things about brass playing is conditioning. A day off can be constructive, or it can set you back a week; two or more days off is just about fatal. To go along with this seemingly high lower limit, there's also a comparatively low upper limit to how much one can practice at a time. Suffice it to say that it's not a pursuit that lends itself to sporadic intense periods of focus, yet unfortunately, that is the mode in which I am most productive. At least writing (music and words) lends itself better to this sort of unpredictable inspiration; as for tuba playing, it's a constant struggle.

Much has been made in brass pedagogy about the so-called "smile" embouchure. It's considered one of the cardinal sins of brass playing, but it's one of the most common nonetheless. While it is often approached as a simple mistake or bad habit, I've found it to be entirely a matter of conditioning. When I don't put in enough time with the horn to keep the relevant muscles in shape, I start smiling; once I've had a good workout for a few days in a row, the smile goes away. I've started to wonder how many brass students who have been confounded by the smile embouchure would benefit from better conditioning with their current (often their "natural" or intuitive) embouchure rather than undergoing the physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing process of making wholesale embouchure changes. While certain embouchures appear to offer better chances of success, it is also true that somewhere, someone has gotten away with just about every embouchure deviation any teacher has ever thought it worth condemning. How much might excellent conditioning (something that is, let's face it, elusive for the majority of aspiring professional brass players, and often the same ones who have been diagnosed with embouchure troubles) allow players to overcome petty idiosyncrasies of the embouchure?

This is something I think about a lot. When I was 16, I was hit in the mouth by both a baseball and a cleat within 6 months of each other; hence, I have a lump of scar tissue in the left-center part of my lower lip that causes it to appear visibly larger than the rest of the lip, and a left corner that was severed 90% of the way through, and hence is noticeably weaker than the right corner despite the great deal of playing and conditioning that has taken place since then. Neither incident had a noticeable effect on my playing at the time other than to take me out of commission for a couple of weeks, yet a few days of substandard conditioning and suddenly the smile shows up with all of its attendant flaws of sound, intonation, and general control.

The smile, at least in my case, is a symptom, not a root cause worth pursuing. To eliminate the smile during one of those substandard playing days requires contortions of the embouchure that would only make things worse. As always, it seems to me that result-oriented pedagogy trumps adherence to supposed technical norms, and in my case, the way to get rid of the smile is not to change the embouchure but to "feel the burn" in the corners for a few days.


Is classical music the most technically demanding music out there? Or does it (and any other kind of music) merely pose a particular set of obstacles that makes it uniquely challenging, but not necessarily more challenging? I've wrestled with this one for a while also, and I'm still not sure that I've reached a satisfying conclusion. What I do find maddening is when people speak as if classical music has a monopoly on discipline. In reality, discipline has nothing to do with style: many players would have to work especially hard to sound like, say, Chet Baker, whose playing sounds so easy and relaxed to so many people.

I freely admit that classical music is harder for me than jazz, and to take it further, that notated music is harder for me than improvised music. That could simply be a consequence of how much time I have put into each, and/or of an innate inclination, and/or of a tendency to set the bar higher for myself in one case than in the other. But what I mean by this is not even necessarily that I am "better" at jazz and improvisation than I am at realizing and interpreting notated music, but more that there does seem to be a certain amount of technical wiggle room when it comes to improvising in just about any context, and that there is no such thing in the realm of classical solo playing.

I think that when it comes right down to it, improvisation, while infinitely more challenging both cognitively and expressively, affords the player the opportunity to roll with what they've got technically on any given occasion. This is in stark contrast to notated music where the piece is chosen months ahead of time and then subjected to specific preparation that presupposes a set of technical abilities that is relatively stable from day to day. Without this stability, such preparation is scarcely possible; that is why "consistency" is a word that classical musicians in training hear with some frequency. I have never found the consistency in either realm that would allow me to become a world class player, yet after years of feeling closer to this ideal as a classical player, I now feel completely the opposite.

For many years, my improvising (which for most of that time was pretty much limited to bebop and post-bop idioms) was maddeningly inconsistent. There always seemed to be a cycle; call it biorhythms or a male period or whatever. It didn't seem to have much to do with how much I practiced or how I felt in general. One thing that was nearly fool-proof was to listen to a great band or recording that played in those idioms, but even that did not get me going sometimes. This, happily, is changing for the better: ironically, after intentionally expanding my musical purview and spending less time than ever on bop-specific concerns over the past few years, my "inside" playing has solidified in ways that were once highly elusive.

This is going to sound horribly pretentious, but "inside" jazz playing just doesn't seem that daunting any more. What is almost paralyzingly daunting is the realm of Improvised Music (note capitalization), stylistic versatility, stylistic synthesis, and stylistic subversion. Those are becoming increasingly important pursuits to me, and they seem as challenging as bebop once did. I guess it's time to come to terms with the fact that I spent a whole shitload of time practicing to become a better bebop player, and that if I spend a whole shitload of time on something else, I'll get better at that, too.

I want to be crystal clear that this is not to say that I've lost my fascination with jazz. Very much the opposite is true. When I was 20 years old (ca. 5 years ago), I was shocked at how many musicians that were only a few years older than I was were professing to have become disillusioned, uninterested, and even downright hostile to jazz and it's practitioners. Now I too have seen the need to move on in a sense, but I'm still a bit puzzled by all the hostility and repudiation of past endeavors; is it genuine? Ego-driven? Money-driven? Or what?

Jazz is a gateway drug. For me, and I suspect many others, it has been a bridge from classical music to things like prog rock and Improvised Music. In my case, it had to be a bridge that traveled over and around popular music, which got in the way of me being able to really take in a lot of things at face value. By the same token, there are plenty of people for whom jazz is a bridge from pop to classical as well. As a high school student at jazz camps, I was always able to tell the difference between players who came to jazz from classical music and those who came to it from rock. I've talked a lot about feeling out of place in Minneapolis because I feel like practically the only person in the jazz/improvising circles who does not come out of rock and/or pop. The "classic rock" angle in particular colors a great deal of the jazz-oriented stuff that goes on here, and while I can relate as a listener, I sometimes have trouble relating as a player. In any case, jazz may only be the bridge for me, but this trip really is all about the journey and not the destination.

Given my investment in composition, education, and writing, the discipline (and hence the technique) required by classical solo playing is almost inevitably transient; yet improvised music by its very nature is not only accommodating to this situation, but given that one of its primary challenges is avoiding merely repeating old habits, it almost demands a certain inconsistency ("variation" would be a less stigmatized term) in technical ability and outlook. There are aspects of improvised music that demand consistency in other areas: one might label them creative potency, listening skills, mental focus, etc. The difference for me has been that this latter set of abilities have improved and been nurtured through the non-tuba related musical endeavors which occupy so much of my time. Ironically enough, it seems as if the same things that essentially prevent me from spending more time working on the fundamental technique required by classical music are the very reason that my improvisation has continued to improve in absence of putting in said time.


A friend recently asked me if I was relieved to be done with the recital. I wanted to say what I said in the previous post, which was that if one has to put everything else in one's life on hold simply to pull off a given performance, maybe one has chosen the wrong profession. But to be honest, I was relieved to have it behind me, even though (as should be obvious from the recent activity on this blog) it also causes a certain amount of lingering anxiety that was not there before it happened. Here is yet another aspect of musicianship that can't be addressed in the practice room, but it's still no substitute for playing long tones...first thing...every day.

30 October 2007

Recital Reflections

Please excuse the uncharacteristically diaristic blog entry that follows. If nothing else, I'm sure there are a few fellow brass players out there who can relate.

As a college student, the recital (graded or not) was always kind of the ultimate event. Students would essentially plan their entire semesters or even school years around their recitals, and in the weeks and days leading up to the big event, it was almost as if nothing else mattered. This was not infrequently the result of prodding by an ambitious or belligerent teacher, who wanted everything done yesterday (of both the musical and logistical type), and hence placed a lot of undue pressure on the student. It always seemed to me that shame played a large role in the fiasco. It was a toss up whether a poor performance would be a greater blow to the relationship with one's teacher, or to one's social standing within the music department. There was even a certain amount of shaming about recital attendance, usually under the blanket catchphrase of "supporting" your peers/friends/teachers.

I could not be happier to be out from underneath all of these burdens, all of which are small but crucial reasons why I don't see myself earning another music degree in the near future. Last weekend marked my first appearance ever in a non-academic, freelance recital that was put on for all of the right reasons and none of the wrong ones. Suffice it to say that this experience matches up closely with most all of my other post-collegiate musical experiences: while eliminating all of the social and political ills that permeate the academic atmosphere, I have found it difficult to perform up to the level that my collegiate performances would lead one to expect.

For the longest time, school seemed like more of a burden than a means to an end. My chops were always in excellent shape because I was required to play so much each day, both in rehearsal and in individual preparation for performances, and yet I was never allowed to spend that time working on what I thought was important rather than what my required ensemble and recital participation dictated I use it for. That was the single biggest factor in deciding to put off graduate school indefinitely, but it has only half worked out: while I have addressed many of those issues that were pushed aside during college, I simply have not been able to play for as many hours each day as I did before, and my overall conditioning is not what it could be. This time has not, as many predict for those entering the "real world," gone entirely to non-musical day jobs and other "practical considerations" of "real life," but also largely to composing, writing, and teaching, all things which also got cut short by the performance degree curriculum. This, however, has led me to solidify a somewhat different self-image than I had in school: rather than my creativity be subservient to my performing endeavors, I'm feeling increasingly drawn to using my capacities as a performer moreso to serve my creative side rather than for their own sake, as was the case before. I'm afraid this means stunting my growth as a performer ever so slightly, but I think it was probably inevitable anyway.

Returning to academic recital preparation for a moment, my preparation for this event was nothing of the sort. I was even denied the day off from my non-musical day job, which meant waking up to an alarm, warming up early in the day, not playing all afternoon, and then going straight from work to the recital, all heresies of a sort when it comes to academic recital preparation. I had found out the hard way several times over the last few years that without the required academic chop-busting every day of the week, the "chop cycle" I used to rely on to have an automatic good day (i.e. heavy practice through two days before the event, and a very light routine the day before) is no longer reliable, and hence, I don't really know what I am going to get when I show up. In the end, I played okay, but could have played better. I was a little more nervous than I should have been simply on account of the uncertainty. All in all, however, the event was immensely more enjoyable than an academic recital: with no arbitrary repertoire constraints, the program was decidedly modern, with the earliest piece dating from the 1940's; and despite the comparatively sparse attendance, it was far more fulfilling to play for 20 people who showed up out of their own free will than it ever was to play for 100 sleep-starved 19 year-olds who would rather be back in their dorm room playing X-Box.

The point I've been working up to is this: in the end, if one cannot pull off an important musical performance without putting every other conceivable aspect of one's life on hold, perhaps one is not cut out to be a musician. Forgive the gratuitous sports reference, but I was reminded of this point listening to Tim McCarver's analysis preceding Game 7 of the ALCS between the Red Sox and Indians a couple of weeks ago. He pointed out that managers must manage differently in a Game 7 as opposed to any other game, throwing out much conventional wisdom, and being willing to try just about anything if necessitated by the circumstances. Professors and students alike seem to approach senior recitals the same way, making scheduling, diet, social, and academic accommodations in an attempt to maximize performance as if for those couple of days, absolutely nothing else matters. In the end, this is not what I feel like I signed up for when I decided to try to hack it as a musician. Even for professionals, music should be an integral parts of life rather than an irrational obsession or undue burden. In light of this, it seems to me that the seed for burnout is planted in music students from a very early stage. I am only part of the way towards recovering, but I think that with the recital being the ultimate example of this throughout my training, it has been therapeutic to finally fit it into life rather than fit life into it.

23 October 2007


20 October 2007

More Cutesy Philosophy

For lack of having anything more substantive to present here for the last few weeks, here are a couple of unrelated ideas that have been bouncing around my head recently:

On Technique
Technique is like money in that we tend to focus on its ability to corrupt rather than the good things it can enable a person to do. As such, there really isn't any argument to be made in favor of discouraging the acquisition of either, assuming it can be done ethically; it's a person's actions after this has been accomplished that say a lot more about them. As I've said before, that the possession of great technique might corrupt a musician probably has at least as much to do with something that was wrong with them beforehand as with any intrinsic properties of what they might later acquire. The tasteless virtuoso has an analog in the materialistic tycoon.

On Preservation
Recording has changed the nature of aural traditions in music. Imagine if Charlie Parker's or John Coltrane's influence had been limited to those who had heard them in person! I find this interesting to ponder only because it points towards a possible element of hypocrisy among the most conservative of jazz commentators. These commentators are the most likely to advocate a neo-traditional, highly imitative (and, in practice, artistically stagnant) approach; but I have also on multiple occasions read and heard the opinion that the music was better off when recording technology limited each tune to 3 minutes, hence precluding the epic (they would say "self-indulgent") improvisations that became commonplace shortly thereafter. I even occasionally run into someone who attacks the value of recording altogether. Nonetheless, the whole dynamic of imitation-versus-creation would be vastly different if we learned only from other living players; rendering "the greats" inaccessible to subsequent generations might actually ensure more rather than less diversity. It seems to me that the advent of recording is largely responsible for this particular brand of musical conservatism (classical music had its own brand before recording because the music was also written down).

02 October 2007

Atonal Ear Training

When I work with my students on intervals, I use the "atonal" system where you count the number of half steps rather than the traditional "tonal" system. In other words, a major third would be a 4, a perfect fifth would be a 7, etc. What I want to know is if anyone else has experience using this system with raw beginners. Purely out of habit, I tend to start with 1's and 2's (major and minor seconds), then add 3's and 4's (major and minor thirds) and so on, hence still kind of following the tonal system even though the terminology is different. Has anyone tried starting with 0's and 12's (unisons and octaves), then 1's and 11's (minor seconds and major sevenths), then 2's and 10's (major seconds and minor sevenths), and so on? I'm wondering whether it might not make more sense to proceed this way, by pairing intervals that are inversions of each other and hence sound more alike. Has anyone tried this?

30 September 2007

A Bit of Cutesy Philisophy

Popular discourse makes a distinction between an art and a science, the latter being applied to any pursuit that is empirical, objective and/or quantifiable, and the former being used to indicate that the rules of engagement are somehow vague, undefined, and/or subjective. Dating, it might be said, is an art in that there's no quantifiable recipe for success; conversely, bicycle maintenance could be called a science in that there is more clearly a right and a wrong way to do things. Hitting a baseball or a golf ball are good examples of tasks that might appear to fall somewhat in the middle: some great players may appear to have wildly erratic or idiosyncratic swings, your coach might say, but they all do a few crucial things exactly the same way.

This widely understood distinction notwithstanding, abstract art and the hard sciences do have at least one thing in common, along with athletics as well: they afford human beings the opportunity to cultivate, demonstrate, and freely exercise their understanding of and control over their physical environment. The hard sciences may be empirical, logical, and rigorous, but they are also expressive in this way; and abstract art, while devoid of literal meaning and hence ensured of the most subjective of receptions from its audience, is not created randomly, but by being in touch with physical reality in a way that can only be called scientific.

Accomplishments such as calculus, the slam dunk, and The Rite of Spring are all brash displays of a certain level of control over and understanding of the parameters of our physical environment. In my view, this is every bit as much an inherently artistic or aesthetic concept as it is a scientific one.

28 September 2007

Work For Hire?

This is really appalling: apparently some film schools require students to sign the rights to their student works over to the university. According to the article, the University of Hawaii claims that most any work done by students and faculty belongs to the school.

Can you imagine not owning the rights to anything that you wrote or recorded or while a student? How about the trade off for landing a college teaching job being losing the rights to all the music you create during that time? Since there's no money to be made from most of what comes out of college music departments anyway, I guess it would be surprising if this happened. Nonetheless, this is still a bit shocking to read.

20 September 2007

Buying and Listening Habits

In talking to several acquaintances recently, I have learned that most of them have at least one quirk when it comes to their CD buying and/or listening habits that seems very counterintuitive to me.

I know someone who buys lots of CD's and listens to them only a few times. Schoenberg said that to like something one must first be able to remember it; probably too broad of a generalization, but certainly one that I find myself identifying with most of the time. In any case, if you can't remember it at all, how's that any different from never having listened to it in the first place? It's also good to give everything a fair shot; early on especially, I found that things that sounded "weird" at first I often ended up far more attached to in the end than the things I liked right away. This, however, is changing the more experience I gain; nowadays, my early reaction is much more indicative of my eventual "final" judgment.

I know someone who has almost stopped buying recorded music completely. This seems very strange to me. The more you know, the more you don't know, right? New recordings are being made at an alarming rate, and this only adds to an already staggering cumulative body of work that is available. The more music one is exposed to, the more one becomes aware of what one hasn't heard. It starts to appear unmanageable sometimes, but rather than get discouraged, it comes to seem even more imperative that one continue to investigate. Time is running out, you know? I can't imagine living without hope of anything interesting ever materializing again. That would really suck.

I know someone who does not expect a CD to last more than a couple of years. Many concerns have emerged about the durability of CD's. I treat mine poorly, and yet I have had no problems yet that were not due to gross neglect (i.e. major scratches and scuffs). My earliest computer burned CD's have also held up quite well considering that they are supposed to have a much shorter life span than their commercially produced counterparts. I'll be holding my breath as the oldest among my CD collection enter their second decade.

I know someone whose CD collection is heavily weighted towards only a few favorite artists. Conversely, back when I was starting from scratch, I figured that I ought to focus on breadth rather than depth simply because there was so much out there. I figured that I could start to specialize after I got a decent idea of what I was dealing with in the first place. I seem to recall developing this approach based largely on what I was hearing and reading from jazz pedagogy, although come to think of it, I can't place the exact source right now. I seem to think that Aebersold advocates this somewhere, but I'm not sure. Lo and behold, I have stuck to this mindset for almost a decade and the sum total of all recorded music seems more unmanageable than ever. I've also found that, according to acquaintances, this is probably my oddest quirk as a consumer of recorded music; nonetheless, I plan to stick by it for a while to come. The toughest issue is posed by major figures who have reinvented themselves multiple times: Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton, Gyorgy Ligeti, etc. One does not simply pick one CD by one of these artists and call it a representative sample, so essentially, you end up counting music from different periods of the artist's career as if it were made by different people. There's so much out there that you're going to miss some of it no matter what. If nothing else, the creative process demands stimulation (if not downright influence), and I think my approach works well in this way. I also think that there's a certain amount of professional obligation to be aware of what's out there, as well as to stay abreast of new developments (if not as a player or writer, than at least as a teacher).

Finally, check out the comment to here. Critics selling their review copies of CD's before the official release of the album? You'd expect there to be an unwritten rule against this in the profession, but either it doesn't exist at all, or it isn't a sufficient deterrent. I guess chronic exposure to less-than promising releases leads some critics become so cynical about musicians that they have no conscience about this.

What are some of your buying and listening quirks?

13 September 2007


The blogroll concept has always bothered me. If someone puts you in their blogroll, are you obligated to put them in yours? Why bother putting the most widely-read blogs in your blogroll when they already appear on every single other music blog the world over? In the link, do you use the name of the blog, the name of the person, or both?

Suddenly, the cartoon light bulb appeared over my head and the solution became obvious: the postroll. From now on, when I read elsewhere a post or article that I judge worthy of my readers' attention, a link to said post or article will appear in my *postroll* at right. Besides avoiding the piddily hang-ups already listed, there are 4 really good reasons for doing it this way:

(a) because none of us share exactly the same interests or depth of knowledge about the same subjects, and hence even at a "good" blog, not every post is going to be worth everyone's time; this way, the postroll becomes an extension of the content on your own blog as it more strongly reflects your own opinions and interests;

(b) none of us are perfect, and we are all bound to turn out a few turds here and there; in recommending a particular writer, you want to showcase their finest work (same as with musicians, right?);

(c) for better of worse, the blog world seems to be entirely concerned with the present, at the particular expense of the past. In most cases, it seems as if the archive feature is almost superfluous; upon discovering a new blog, how many of us dig through the entire archive before checking out what is up on the home page? With the postroll, worthy contributions are sorted from the duds as they happen, which affords readers who may only later discover blog a more efficient means of catching up on what they've been missing.

(d) no more "link-and-run" back-patting posts; simply link to the post in the postroll and resume turning out your own masterpieces!

I've got a few links up already to get the ball rolling, none of which are likely to be news to many of you regulars...but if they are, check them out.

05 September 2007

When To Hold Your Ground

There's a moment in the Miles Davis Quintet's Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel (at 8:59 of All of Me from Disc 3 to be precise) where Wayne Shorter resolves to a D major arpeggio over an E-flat major seventh chord. The juxtaposition makes for one of those startling moments that are so characteristic of this set, and of which there are too many to count contained in it. What I find so paradoxical is that in the musical world which these performances inspired and enabled, moments like this one are exceedingly rare simply because the musical parameters don't allow for them to happen at all.

In other words, piano players in these contexts just don't play unadulterated major seventh chords, and saxophonists just don't play major arpeggios; the chances of hearing a major arpeggio superimposed over a major seventh chord a half-step away are non-existent. What you are more likely to hear is a bi-tonal chord (call it Dmaj/Ebmaj) in the piano and an "Eastern" sounding scale played by the horns. It's great that Dmaj/Ebmaj is now an acceptable chord symbol that most anyone who fancies themselves a "jazz" musician can reasonably be expected to understand. The only problem is that Wayne didn't play Dmaj/Ebmaj, he played Dmaj; and Herbie didn't play Dmaj/Ebmaj, he played Ebmaj7.

What enabled this moment to happen is the innovative, transitional nature of what the group was doing: they weren't so much obliterating or evading common practice as they were subverting it, maintaining it as a point of reference against which even their more subtle deviations stand out in high relief. For better or worse, this moment has itself now been absorbed into common practice, but moreso as "Dmaj/Ebmaj" than anything else. Nonetheless, if you were writing a tune and you wanted to recreate this type of moment in it, you would have to write different chord symbols in each player's part rather than writing them both, one on top of the other, as the case may be.

The ability to identify aurally what the soloist is doing harmonically (and even anticipate what they might do before it happens) has become a major topic of discussion and study in jazz education. This skill is as valuable as it is difficult to cultivate, but what is even more valuable and difficult is to have a good enough idea of what the group sounds like "out front" that reacting to a soloist doesn't have to always take the form of imitating what they just played. There are quite a few chordal players working today who, upon hearing a horn soloist play a major arpeggio a half step down, would pick up on it immediately and then play a bi-tonal at that place in the form for the rest of the solo (or maybe even spontaneously reharmonize the rest of the form using bi-tonals or altered extensions). There's no doubt that this can be effective, yet if this becomes the universal knee-jerk reaction in such situations, we disable the possibility that Herbie and Wayne realized so spectacularly in the example given above.

Listening and reacting are the essence of jazz performance, and it was this quintet that took such things to their highest level. What is interesting about this particular moment is that it was enabled by one of the more conservative performances in the collection, with the rhythm section playing very straight ahead time and the horns playing sparingly during their solos. It is precisely by creating such an "inside" vibe throughout the majority of the performance that the "outside" moments come to stand out so spectacularly. We don't tend to remember this group for delegating the freedom to subvert the changes only to one player (the soloist) at a time, but rather for their uncanny ability to do so as a unit with uniformly spectacular results. Nonetheless, there are moments of the former type, and they offer an important lesson: when it comes to improvisation of virtually any kind, it is just as important to know when to hold your ground as it is to know when to follow or imitate another player.

26 August 2007

Happy Birthday/Blog Philosophy Revisited/Year In Review

This blog turned 1 year old on August 18. Happy birthday to me/it. What follows are some of my reflections on the year that was.


After a certain amount of experimentation, I decided that the best way to proceed here would be to post only when I feel I have something worth saying AND have taken the time to produce something worth reading on said subject. This, of course, results in two highly un-bloglike characteristics: the posts are often long, and they materialize infrequently. Nevertheless, I plan to continue down this road because I believe that there are many topics that deserve better than the traditional blog-and-run miniatures found elsewhere, and also that both you and I probably have better things to do than to hang out here on a daily basis. If I am going to take the time to write (and expect you to take the time to read), I want it to be worth it for both of us.

If you simply must have your Fickle Ears daily, you may follow this simple procedure:

(1) when a new post materializes, determine how many days it has been since the last post;

(2) divide the new post into this many sections;

(3) read one section per day.

If that's not good enough for you, there's always the prospect of re-reading past entries. Particularly if you're new here and on the fence as to whether you'll ever come back, you might check out the following "year in review" for a sampling of what I feel to be the most representative posts from Year One:

On Music Criticism

On Composition

On Teaching Jazz Improvisation

On Patterns In Music

On Self-Esteem

On "Saving" Classical Music


To avoid the appearance of simply using the birthday/year in review thing to fill up space after not producing much for the last several weeks, there's a new post up following this one. Remember to enjoy it responsibly; it may have to last you a while.

The Most Important Thing...

Back in March, I wrote:

The imitation of another musician's personal style is often considered to be an act of reverence. If the imitation is too close, it may cross over into the realm of plagiarism. But more often than either of these, it is an act of vanity. When John Q. Composer writes a new work that is significantly indebted to a previous one yet is of lesser quality, the most important thing about the new work is that he is the one who created it.

I fear that the same dynamic exists when it comes to blogging about current events. This has been particularly in evidence recently with the seemingly perpetual string of major musical figures passing away.

Certainly writing a blog entry constitutes a certain way of paying respect; the near-total dominance of one story throughout the musico-blogosphere merely reflects how important a musician was to so many people. One the other hand, though, in the case of writers who had little or no personal contact (let alone relationship of any kind) with these musicians outside of admiring their work, it becomes increasingly about oneself (i.e. the blogger) rather than about the musician in question, especially when nearly everyone seems to put everything else on hold in order to give their take on the story. At this point, one is no longer doing everyone else a service by breaking the story because everyone else already knows; what distinguishes one article from the next, then, is who wrote it.

Read a newspaper obit and you get all the pertinent information; then read 15 blogs and you learn very little else about the person, but a hell of a lot about the bloggers. Perhaps a brief mention of the passing and a couple of links would be the most respectful way to go about it; "Here's what so-and-so meant to me" is starting to get old.

Of course, we have all caught ourselves raving to an acquaintance about a piece or a recording as if we had created it, even though we hadn't. It seems to be human nature to, figuratively speaking, take ownership of things that we cherish. It's one thing when the dearly departed is an obscure or unknown figure that could use the exposure. On the other hand, in the case of a real luminary, it's made even more superfluous by the fact that we all feel that same sense of ownership and emotional investment with this person and their work.

08 August 2007

Home Recordings #1

This marks the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of posts sharing some "do it yourself" recordings of mine. To kick things off, I have a three tuba arrangement of some Beethoven piano music:

"Presto" from Op. 10, No. 2

It's a frequent topic of speculation among tubists what old Ludwig might have done with the tuba had he ever heard one. I'm not so sure this is it, but it's fun nonetheless. Even with a click track and unlimited chances to get things correct, I found this to be quite a challenge, and the end result is far from perfect. The tuba is, of course, a nightmare to record. It certainly was never intended to be miked this close and in such a dead room, but besides the fact that the sound tends to be more optimal several feet away, close miking also makes even the smallest mistakes stand out.

I don't claim superiority to anyone who has put out a "classical" tuba recording commercially, but the distant nature of the sound on many such records has always bothered me. I'd like to hear closer miking and a more "immediate" presence from the recorded tuba, and I'm trying to use projects like this as training for anything I might do in a "real" studio. If you can get a great sound right off the bell, you'll have a world-class sound in most any decent space. Some teachers advocate practicing outdoors this reason, and I think I may try that more often (although it's only available 6 months out of the year in MN).

As a side note, this is, in fact, a three-part arrangement. I cheated here and there in recording it, but I originally wrote it to be played in real time by three players, and I'm sure it's doable as such.

25 July 2007

Arnold Schoenberg and Stan Kenton

What do these two have in common? Both felt that the setting in which their music was expected to be presented was not necessarily the most appropriate one possible. Compare the following excerpts from the Statement of Aims of Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances (1) and Pete Welding's liner notes to Kenton's "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm" (2).

(1) Herein lies the essential difference revealed by a comparison of the Society's aims with those of the everyday concert world, from which it is quite distinct in principle. Although it may be possible, in preparing a work for performance, to get along with the strictly limited and always insufficient number of rehearsals hitherto available, for better or worse (usually the latter), yet for the society the number of rehearsals allotted to works to be performed will be limited only by the attainment of the greatest possible clarity and by the fulfillment of the composer's intentions as revealed in his work.

...artists of high-priced reputation will be used only so far as the music demands and permits; and moreover that kind of virtuosity will be shunned which makes of the work to be performed not the end in itself but merely a means to an end which is not the Society's, namely, the display of irrelevant virtuosity and individuality, and the attainment of purely personal success.

...The only success that an artist can have here is that (which should be most important to him) of having made the work, and therewith its composer, intelligible.

(2) And although the orchestra had started as a dance band–albeit one with a rather different twist–and continued to play for dancers, it became more and more a concert ensemble as Kenton more fully realized his ambitions to anneal jazz with European concert music.

...It is partly as a result of his efforts that jazz is now accorded respect as a serious music, perhaps America's major contribution to world music; that the locus of the music has shifted from the nightclub to the concert hall and festival stage; that the synthesis with European concert music he envisioned has been enabled to take place in the work of others who followed in his wake; and that the music has had its horizons widened through various of the concepts he pioneered and set in motion.

Obviously, Schoenberg's complaints had more to do with the various distractions surrounding the concerts (prima donna performers, hostile audiences, and critics wielding the power to make or break an artist) than with the concert format itself. Many of what he sees as problems have been part of classical music both before and after his time. On the other hand, for Kenton, assimilating to this concert format was a breakthrough in itself (or so it is made to sound). What intrigues me about both is the idea that a musician may have to actively search out or create from scratch the ideal presentation of his/her music, and the resistance one may encounter along the way from casual listeners and fellow professionals alike.

To put it bluntly, for me, this is about jazz and bars. Welding's reference to the "nightclub" is too generous a description of many of the Minneapolis venues I have performed in, and yet, the musicians, bookers, and proprietors of these establishments seldom give the situation a second thought. Even working for free, a traditional classical string quartet would never be allowed in one of these venues, but whether it is the history of the music or the simple fact that it often enough involves a drum set and a guitar, jazz groups have always played in dive bars, even now when both the proprietors and the clientele of most such establishments tend to favor other music.

Call me a snob if you will, but nothing I do belongs in this setting. I say this not because of the puke on the floor, the often-cramped stages, or the paltry financial rewards. I would not only put up with but embrace all of that if only the more important aspects of the situation were in line, but as it stands, these establishments are not conducive to attentive listening, not only because of their horrid acoustics, but also because they exist first and foremost as conduits for socializing. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just not an ideal environment for concert music. I would not be so quick to laud the virtues of the concert hall and festival stage either. The acoustics of many concert halls are not good for jazz; who would expect otherwise, as they are designed primarily with the traditional European symphony orchestra in mind? The festivals, on the other hand, aren't always the best either, especially if they are outdoors. Usually, this means relying almost entirely on amplification, even of the horns, and this changes the character of acoustic music too much for my tastes. Besides, at 24 years of age, I am already too old to get booked at jazz festivals. If only I could go back to being a teenager and take up the saxophone and be from a foreign country and...forget it.

What, then, is the solution to the non-classical concert music conundrum? I don't know. The "performance space" is always an attractive concept, a medium-sized room tucked away somewhere with seating for 30-50 people and half-decent acoustics. If only there was a musician somewhere who could afford such a place. Most likely, we'll have to make due with the current hodgepodge of bars, concert halls and coffee houses for some time to come, but I for one will always be keeping my eyes out for venues that offer something closer to the ideal.

It doesn't help that the very idea of presenting jazz as "concert" music is still resisted by some jazz musicians and audiences, who sometimes argue that it is unwise to remove the music from its native socio-cultural context. I would counter that this context too often represents an affront to both the music and the musician for the reasons already given. The position I'm taking was taken by some as early as the 1960's, but of course, the most conservative wing of the jazz culture warriors is always looking nearly twice that far back, to a time when jazz was both literally and figuratively "popular" music. Does it bother anyone else when the musicians are essentially being used to sell food and drinks, or perhaps are merely being tolerated by the management for some other reason? Venue owners take advantage of musicians to this end, offering little or no guaranteed pay and getting away with it simply because there are enough bands willing to play for free, musical competency be damned. I would hate to think that any practitioner or other devotee of a certain music would find that music unsuitable for concert performance. That's an outright admission that when you take away everything that attaches itself to the music like a leech, there's not much left that's worth anything. For me, in general, jazz is not one of those musics. In this case, concert = respect and dignity as far as I'm concerned.


Despite having only a cursory knowledge of his music, I have held Schoenberg in extremely high regard as a thinker ever since I read Style and Idea, an exhaustive collection of his writings. I have maintained ever since that if he was crazy, so am I: this book is among the most incisive things I've ever read on music, and is even laugh-out-loud funny on occasion. I highly recommend it to everyone.

I don't know nearly as much about Kenton. I bought the above mentioned CD to use in a jazz history class I was teaching, as well as out of a sense of professional obligation. With the exception of a few tunes, the music is starting to grate on me. It seems to me to be the earliest example of the distastefully high lead trumpet writing that has become de rigeur in big bands of all stripes. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of the subject can fill me in on the history of the big band trumpet screeching (when I was in school, my mom always called it, "that damn Las Vegas trumpet thing").

In any case, I have to respect (or at least empathize) with both men when it comes to the need for a different format or presentation. For me, this has become about establishing a "concert" atmosphere away from the traditional "concert" venues. Of course, to hear people like Greg Sandow tell it, today's movement is a movement in the opposite direction, one where adherents are quick to point out that even classical music was once presented in circumstances not too terribly different from what I'm opposing here, and then suggest that we should consider going back to that. It's safe to say that I, for one, would stop going to concerts if people were allowed to walk around, chit-chat, and eat popcorn; that, however, is much less than typically goes on in many venues I've played at. In any case, I believe in strongly in the concert as an institution, one that must be understood as aspiring to be "different" rather than "better" than the alternatives (and, dare I say, the ball is in the relativists' court on this one, for I have to believe that the interest in "pop" music on behalf of "concert" musicians has never been higher, myself not withstanding). The concert is not intended to be above anyone: it is simply a place where listening attentively takes precedence over everything else, if not temporarily.

By removing all other attractions and distractions, you are also being more honest. The ArtsJournal approach to "saving" classical music has always struck me as dishonest because it relies on what is essentially a bait-and-switch tactic, namely creating some non-musical attraction and crossing your fingers that some of the people you fool into coming happen to enjoy the music also. If it saves a regional orchestra here and there, fine. My personal experiences have taught me that it is more fulfilling to play for 3 involved listeners than it is to play for 1,000 people who would rather be somewhere else. That philosophy combined with an insistence on "concert" presentation isn't going to draw very many people overall, but there's a good chance it will draw the same number of listeners as any most other approach.

16 July 2007

Miscellaneous Confessions

I am not an audiophile. When I listen to recorded music, I may notice the sound quality, but very rarely does this color my overall opinion of the work. It has to get to the level of the constant static on the earliest jazz recordings (i.e. 1910's and 20's) before I will bat an ear. I can't tell the difference between MP3 and CD sound. The word "lossless" is not yet in my vocabulary. I can tell the difference between CD and vinyl, but who cares? I can't stand reviewers who practically put equal stock in production and content, but I suppose this isn't worth bellyaching about since great music poorly recorded tends to garner more acclaim in the long run than mediocre music masterfully recorded.

Lately, I've found that I am far more likely to be dissatisfied with the sound at live performances than recorded ones. Perhaps that means that I take the art and craft of recording engineers for granted, or that the overall competence of live "sound guys" everywhere is not very high, or that we are more aware of what we are missing when we can see it but not hear it. In any case, when it comes to recordings, I don't seem to have any trouble looking past the production as much as possible in order to connect with what is really going on musically. I am more picky when it comes to live music, which raises a familiar conundrum.

People have been speculating for decades now as to whether recorded music will kill live music, and even I as a musician have to admit that in many cases, I'd rather stay home with my stereo. This is mostly because of amplification*. You might as well be listening to a recording when violins or trumpets or grand pianos are cranked through a PA system; the sound comes out of a speaker just the same, and it has none of the character that the same instrument has when heard unamplified. Pretty much the only thing that makes it worth the trouble to hear the music live is to hear the sound of the instruments and/or the space in person. That's all that live music has on recording in the end, and yet there are precious few settings outside of the concert hall where one can expect to hear unamplified live performances on a regular basis.

What comes out of a PA is what comes out of your home stereo, only your home stereo isn't set at a dangerously high volume (unless you want it that way) and you don't have to commute in order to use it. I value live music as much as anyone, but for me, "live" means "acoustic." There simply is not enough of a difference between a recorded ensemble and an amplified ensemble to make it worth anyone's time to choose the latter over the former. There's also something to be said for the comfort of one's own home, as the saying goes. I don't think live acoustic music is in any danger of succumbing to recordings as long as it continues to offer something recordings don't have. Live amplified music, on the other hand, will always be in direct competition with recordings, which offer basically the same experience. Let's face it: some recordings come right off the soundboard at a live show. That says it all.

*Let's be clear up front that this is not an all-out attack on electric guitars. The choice and calibration of *personal* amplification equipment is an art unto itself, as evidenced by the fact that when a PA system is in use, it is not uncommon to mic the guitarist's amp rather than go direct. I think we already tend to recognize that a musician's particular set-up is part of his/her sound and art; what is not recognized as widely is that this sound must be as prone as any to disfigurement when run through a PA by an incompetent engineer.

10 July 2007


It is a well-established pedagogical guideline that one should avoid negative advice whenever possible. As teachers, we tend to accept the premise that it is better to say "do this" than it is to say "don't do that." Nevertheless, this mode of thinking tends to go out the window when tuba players approach repertoire that predates the tuba, especially anything by J.S. Bach. When it comes to imitating another instrument, the hip thing for the teacher to say has traditionally been, "Don't sound like a tuba."

I feel that even when such imitation is part of the process, the ultimate goal is still to sound like a tuba, even (or perhaps especially) if that means playing the tuba in a way no one ever has. Throughout the 20th century, the contributions of the great player/pedagogues (Bell, Jacobs, Phillips, et al) that have become the mainstream of tuba pedagogy were in their times often most remarkable for challenging the assumption that the tuba player's abilities need not be on par with the rest of the orchestra simply because the parts did not demand it. What better way to shatter that barrier than to beat the violinists at their own game?

As with composing, the first steps have been imitative. This doesn't mean that they have not produced anything valuable; it does mean that the story isn't over. I've heard it said that the current level of tuba playing in general has grown leaps and bounds over what it was even a mere 20 years ago. In any case, it doesn't take a historian to hear that we've moved beyond the now-traditional dynamic where the greatest thing we can accomplish is to sound like something we are not.

When we play, it must be explicitly with the intent of sounding like a tuba. As Gene Pokorny says in the introduction to his orchestral excerpts CD, if you want to be professional tuba player and you don't love the sound of the tuba, you may want to reconsider your career choice. We will continue to imitate all kinds of things in the interest of musical growth, but we must not be afraid to form our own idiomatic statements, and consequently, an identity based on sounding like ourselves rather than like something else.

03 July 2007

More Food For Thought From "The Nation"

I promise this will relate to music eventually. If you don't believe me, keep reading until it does.

I'm not making a habit out of taking issue with verbiage in The Nation because I have some kind of bone to pick with them. It's just that I've been reading it regularly again and I've stumbled upon another very thought-provoking turn of phrase, this time from Ronald Aronson in his article "The New Atheists." Aronson profiles five recently published anti-religious books that have made bestseller lists; I won't bother with titles and authors because all you need to know about the excerpt that follows is that it refers to two of them:

"[Author 1] and [Author 2] might have considered their readers more and disciplined their own need to follow out every line of thought..."

If you are a musician, you probably have heard almost this exact same phrase uttered before, only about a piece of music, a performance, or a recording. "Consider your audience" is another one of those pieces of our colloquial musicological vocabulary that could have been devised by Karl Rove. It's not about specific people with specific wants and needs; it's about something more abstract and universal that it is suddenly assumed all human beings share merely as a consequence of being human.

As with most such assumptions, it has proven irresistible to large throngs of people despite being completely false. There is, in fact, wild variation in our willingness to read demanding books or listen to demanding pieces of music, to say nothing of the inherent value of "follow[ing] out every line of thought" in philosophical discourse. Used as it is in Aronson's article, the phrase is just another institutionalization of pop culture sensibility, where anything that cannot be taken in passively is not worth the trouble (or worse, is elitist or snobbish). Particularly with regard to verbal discourse on issues as complex as religion and atheism, it astounds me that anyone would level such a criticism against a book. Just a few paragraphs earlier, Aronson described the authors as, "devoted...to overcoming a situation in which every other area of life can be critically analyzed while admittedly irrational religious faith is made central to American life but exempted from serious discussion." If pursuing "serious discussion" means being "inconsiderate" of one's audience, does that make it any less urgent or valid?

Music, of course, is not an empirical pursuit, but I don't think that using "consider your audience" as a euphemism for "don't play anything contemporary or long" is any more intelligent or appropriate. Words like "modern" and "avant-garde" got co-opted in the same way, and many people now understand them to refer to embalmed musical styles rather than to their dictionary definitions. The problem? This leaves a linguistic void, or at least creates confusion: what do we call music that is literally "modern" or "avant-garde" but doesn't sound like what most people associate with those terms? Similarly, we must always be considerate (literally) of our audience; they are human beings, after all. But alas, this turn of phrase has also been stolen by the trend-makers and sentenced to function merely as so much mud slung in the general direction of anything dissonant.

I hereby consider my audience by giving them permission to alleviate any discomfort they may experience during my performances. If their butts hurt after 20 minutes, they can get up and leave. If they're falling asleep, they can get up and leave (or stay asleep; just don't snore and/or fall off your chair because those things make noise and would interrupt the performance). If someone in the audience absolutely hates what I do, I would recommend that they get up and leave rather than sticking around and creating that now-famous "cold and stale" atmosphere that has Greg Sandow's knickers in a twist about the future of classical music.

I am reminded of two summers ago when, by some stroke of luck, the Minnesota Orchestra's often-forgettable Sommerfest resulted in a late-night solo piano set at Orchestra Hall by none other than Fred Hersch, and for only ten f$%&*ing dollars! Not only would this have likely cost $50-$100 in most any other case, but it would actually have been worth it. Nonetheless, people's butts were squirming after one tune, and were headed out the door after two or three. The most engaged they were all night was during Hersch's opening remarks when some hysterical laughter erupted as he introduced the first tune, Billy Strayhorn's "Upper Manhattan Medical Group." If he had just followed up with Monk's "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are" and Hank Mobley's "Old World, New Imports," he might have kept them around longer. But Mr. Hersch didn't consider his audience; he just played his ass off.

23 June 2007

The Case Against Audience Tampering

I rarely engage in the typical inter-blog linking and back-patting behaviors, but I'll make an exception here. I've been a major detractor of pre-concert lectures and other such activities since I was a teenager (i.e. since people started trying to use it on me), and now Matthew Guerreri has a postup that supposedly explains why I enjoyed myself more without Joe Musiciologist helping me "understand" the music. Daniel Wolf also has a typically-eloquent take on the matter here.

Matthew, who I respect greatly as a writer, says that these findings contradict his personal experience. Conversely, they reflect mine very accurately. That two people would feel so differently on this ought to be proof in and of itself that listeners must be drawn in on their own terms, and that contrary to what pre-concert talks often assume, different listeners will be engaged by different landmarks in the same piece.

21 June 2007

The Tasteless Display of Non-Virtuosity

It is high time we stopped hating virtuosity. I am a firm believer that the thinking musician cannot possibly have too much technique, for if he/she is truly a "thinking musician", then he/she will have plenty of constructive uses for those abilities. The tasteless display of virtuosity is not the inevitable consequence of developing virtuosic technique; those who put on such displays have something else wrong with them that is pretty much unrelated to their technique, even if their technique becomes a vehicle for expressing this pathology.

If you ask me, tasteless displays of non-virtuosity are equally disconcerting. There's a classical-era string quartet piece in the Muzak rotation where I work that is rottenly out of tune. Someone (several someones, actually) got paid to play, record, mix, produce, distribute, and license that music, while there are inevitably several quartets worth of string players the world over with impeccable intonation who are eating ramen and peanut butter for dinner tonight. Do you feel better now?

Of course, I'm going to get myself labeled an elitist, a snob, or a typical young whipper-snapper, whereas the anti-virtuoso people are being inclusive, open-minded, mature, perhaps even multi-cultural. And of course, I'm a tuba player engaged in the Sisyphian struggle against the valve system and all of it's inherent flaws of intonation, so who's to say I could do any better? The point is that some people are not satisfied with merely attaining the level of technique needed to land a Muzak session gig. Vanity, self-aggrandizement, and exhibitionism are not good reasons for feeling this way, but artistic vision and personal pride are. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. The circus acts give virtuosity a bad name; nonetheless, it is vital to music, and a dearth of it is harder to endure than the most shameless displays of excess.

20 June 2007

Prepare >>> Produce

As a college music student, it always seemed that everything I was doing was preparatory. Every act of performance or composition was in some sense undertaken less for its own sake than as an exercise aimed at sharpening my abilities, or perhaps as a barometer of where those abilities stood at the time. Just over two years removed from my last school-related activities, I find myself suddenly overtaken by frustration at how little of value (even to me) I have produced up to this point, as well as the realization that this has occurred largely because the focus has always been disproportionately on preparation rather than actual production.

There are a handful of recordings and scores that I'm very proud of, but in large part, all of those great things that my early accomplishments supposedly foreshadowed have yet to materialize. All of this has allowed me to confirm that the greatest challenge in making the transition to the "real world" is not economic, but artistic and philosophical: how does one go from constant preparation to consummating that preparation in the form of tangible musical products (i.e. performances, recordings, and scores)?

Preparation is hard work physically, but mentally and emotionally, it's comparatively easy as long as it is always directed at something abstract and years in the future. In an academic setting, there is also lots of direction, coaxing, and pressure coming from without as well as within. Now, however, I am feeling pressure (from myself rather than from others) to deliver the goods in a timely fashion.

I was, of course, always frustrated with the fact that school involved so much preparation and so little resolution of that preparation. I was scared off (perhaps, it now seems, for good) from taking composition lessons when a professor I approached told me that he had stopped composing altogether as an undergraduate while studying theory. Privately, I reacted very strongly against this: "To stop composing now," I though to myself, "would merely diminish my total output." Big-headed and naive? Absolutely...but I was right. I wrote several worthy pieces during this time, and they're almost everything I have to hang my hat on at this point.

Since there are only so many hours in the day, more producing equates directly to less preparing, and hence, it's too easy to feel that there's another big-headed, naive assumption behind this decision also (i.e. as if I was done learning for good). I've made up my mind, though, for better or worse, that it's time to throw down. I'm not getting any younger, and it would be a shame to waste all of that hard work.

13 June 2007

Making E-Time

Let's call this the second in a two-part series on music and the internet, the first of which would be located here

While writing that entry, I was reminded of the time I volunteered to work the phones for a local radio station's pledge drive. They had a sheet sitting on the table listing the number of people who had listened to the station online the previous day, which country they were from, and the total amount of time by country. The good news was that 6 people from China tuned in; the bad news was that the total amount of time the 6 of them listened to the station was less than 5 minutes. As I recall, The Netherlands topped the list with 2 people and a total of 3+ minutes; this was the only country (including the U.S.) where listeners averaged a minute or more each.

So, is there something inherently casual, or even inane, about the internet? Not for me. I block out time every so often to listen (REALLY listen, that is) to music on other musicians' websites and read articles and blogs that are relevant to my musical endeavors. Of course I enjoy it, but I am very careful to make it constructive. When my attention span lapses, I go do something else. If I stumble on something I'm not interested in, I move on quickly.

The best thing about the internet is also the worst thing about it: everything is just a click away. This has yielded great advances in communications, but it also presents an unparalleled opportunity for fickleness to get the better of the user. The internet isn't doing anyone any good if no one takes advantage of it, but it's also not much good when used for trivial reasons either.

Finally, here's an excerpt from a recent Electronic Frontier Foundation newsletter that dovetails nicely with what I wrote previously about physical storage devices:

The NPD Group's latest music stats provide yet another reason that the RIAA's war on college students is misguided:

"The 'social' ripping and burning of CDs among friends -- which takes place offline and almost entirely out of reach of industry policing efforts -- accounted for 37 percent of all music consumption, more than file-sharing, NPD said."

This data suggests offline sharing is growing, and that's to be expected. Along with burning CDs and DVDs for each other, fans can swap hard drives, share USB drives, and use many other technologies to share music without hopping online or installing P2P software. It's only going to get easier to share mass volumes of music in this way -- these tools are increasingly ubiquitous, with ever-growing capacity and ever-diminishing price.

06 June 2007

My Philosophy In a Nutshell

Much ink has been spilled and time wasted trying to define "music" from a technical or structural point of view, but what about defining it in terms of perception/reception? I'm willing to accept any sound as musical. However, if I wish to find the music in any old sound, I am the one who must decide that this is what I want to do, how I should do it, and why it is important to me. The sound as a physical phenomenon remains unchanged whether I ignore it or contemplate it. A Mozart piano sonata could be a mere distraction if it threatens to drown out an important conversation, while a construction crew could unwittingly create a musical experience for someone who chooses to receive it as such.

In my relatively brief time as a musician, my music has been both a distraction and an attraction to many people. I, of course, intend only the latter, but I only control the sound; the audience controls the music. That there is, in fact, a whole sovereign genre called "ambient music" is very disappointing to me. Besides the fact that I despise this phrase, I would also argue that it is a contradiction in terms. Making music has as much to do with receiving as it does with sending. For this reason, it may be possible to create music unintentionally or accidentally, but it is not possible to perceive it that way. There is a difference between "hearing" and "listening" just as there is between "seeing" and "looking".

Some call this an intellectual distinction; I disagree. That position presupposes that there is only one way to hear a piece of music; that there are certain things that everyone needs to be on the look out for, lest they fail to "understand" the piece. As Debussy said, listeners need only to listen. Let them notice and miss what they may. It is not a question of intellectuals and non-intellectuals, but of those who decide to pay attention and those who either can't or won't for whatever reason.

Among those who pay attention, no two will have the same experience, nor should they. The aims and implications of much of the audience outreach that has been done in the last several decades are profoundly flawed because they assume that the goal is to teach large numbers of people to experience the same music the same way. It's no wonder little progress has been made, for this is simply impossible. The current paradigm is one that aims to educate diverse perspectives into conformity rather than simply allowing them to take their place and exist as they may, but that approach is no better suited to music than it is to government.